THE received wisdom is to leave the best until last. Having performed and recorded all of J S Bach’s other major works for keyboard, Canadian pianist Angela Hewitt is more inclined to admit she put off Bach’s difficult unfinished work The Art Of Fugue.

“There’s doubt that The Art Of Fugue is even a keyboard piece,” she says, having first performed it in full in 2012.

“I’m glad I have waited until now. I am able to put all my knowledge of Bach’s performance into it. It’s not an easy thing to come to terms with or bring alive for an audience, but I’m glad I have done it.”

In a piece for The Guardian, written ahead of a performance at the Royal Festival Hall in 2012, she admitted she had never been grabbed by The Art Of Fugue in the same way as Bach’s other works, asking: “Could it be that, at the end of his life, Bach had finally written something boring?”

She began a long process of researching the score and planning her fingering, phrasing and articulation.

“Bach’s music is made up of all different voices and you have to choose your fingering carefully,” she says.

“I remember the first time I played it, I was completely overwhelmed by the music.”

She has recorded a version, for release on the Hyperion label in October, but knows the piece will develop and change as she performs it live.

“I recorded The Well-Tempered Clavier in 1996, and again in 2008 after 110 performances in 26 countries,” she says. “The piece was much more a part of me – and you can hear the difference in the recordings.”

Hewitt’s love of Bach comes from her organist and choirmaster father.

“I grew up listening to Bach – playing and singing it,” she says. “I was born into the right home to become a Bach player, that’s for sure!”

Part of what makes the 300-year-old composer such a perfect fit for Hewitt is the rhythm and dance in his music – something which Hewitt has always tried to express in her own piano-playing.

“I sang a lot as a kid, and did classical ballet for 20 years very seriously,” says Hewitt.

Origins of music

“I transferred it to the piano. The real origins of music are those two basic things – song and dance – and I really emphasise those two things when I play. I’m always trying to make the piano sing and dance.

“There is an element of dance in Bach’s music, which is less evident in The Art Of Fugue. I am bringing out those dance rhythms that are part of his compositions. That joy was part of his faith – he wrote all his music to the glory of God.

“You don’t have to be religious to like Bach but I feel there is a great sense of joy in his works. It’s timeless music, it doesn’t feel like it was written 300 years ago.”

As well as performing all of Bach’s major piano pieces, Hewitt has focused on other classical giants, including Beethoven’s sonatas, Francois Couperin’s keyboard works and a cycle of Mozart’s concertos.

“When you do so much of one composer you get into his or her skull,” she says. “With those composers who were also keyboard players, such as Bach, Mozart, Beethoven or Liszt, you get a feel for how they played their instrument.

“When you have done 32 of Beethoven’s piano sonatas you have much more of him as a human being.”

She is a big fan of the festival as a way of discovering or hearing music – having organised her own Trasimeno Music Festival in Umbria since 2005.

“I have friends and fans from all over the world come to a beautiful place for a week,” she says. “They get to know each other and I get to choose the artists and repertoire I want – it gives me the chance to do things that I wouldn’t otherwise get asked to do.

“This year will be our tenth festival – there’s been an amazing repertoire. I must put some sort of souvenir programme together...”

  • Angela Hewitt is at Glyndebourne, Firle, near Lewes, on Sunday, May 4. Starts 3pm, grounds open for picnics from 1pm, tickets from £10. Call 01273 709709